It has often been said that, “they just don’t make ‘em the way they used to…,” and I suppose one could apply that aphoristic bit of wit to almost anything. But nothing could be more on point than in the profession of songwriting. Profession? Yes, Virginia, it is a profession. Just like screenwriting, playwriting and even book writing – as in “author.” In fact, on the SR form for Sound Recording, to copyright your “work” (not your “art”), the composer and lyricist are referred to as “author.” And, as we mentioned in the last column, songwriting is – or should be considered – a craft. And, I might add, be so valued.
Like many of the writing crafts, there are numerous ways to begin crafting a song but the one I personally prefer is coming up with a strong title first. Why? Because in the world of pop, rock, country, R&B, hip-hop and musical theater (in fact, in all of contemporary songwriting), your title is the name of your product; your brand, what you want your customers to remember or to ask for. I can tell, almost 100% of the time, if a song is well crafted simply by its title. When I taught songwriting classes, I created the acronym S.E.M.I. to help students remember what a strong title’s ingredients are. (Notice I didn’t say great or “hit song” ingredients.) In addition, a strong title will, in all probability, give you an idea as to whether or not the song should be a ballad, up-tempo, moderate or perhaps a dance song. (e.g. – “Let’s Party All Night,” is it more or less likely to be a ballad, up-tempo, moderate or dance/club song? How about, “Happy Anniversary, Baby?”)
S.E.M.I. stands for Story, (as in suggesting a strong story), Emotion (Does it illicit an emotion?), Mood (Does it make you feel something?) and Identification (Does it make you “relate” or “connect” to it in some way?) Here are some song titles taken from the “most played” lists of BMI, ASCAP and Rolling Stone Magazine. See how many of these titles fit the acronym, S.E.M.I.
Leading the list we have the anthemic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” followed by “Never My Love,” “Yesterday,” “Stand By Me,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, “Mrs. Robinson,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Rhythm of the Rain,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Respect,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Born to Run.” These are all classics, as well as million dollar plus copyrights. Now, as in most “rules,” there are always exceptions and in these cases, “Mrs. Robinson” and “Like A Rolling Stone” would qualify as exceptions (I’m sure you can probably think of others, like the Oscar® winning, “Evergreen”). But 13 out of 15 of the most valuable songs ought to tell you what seems to work most often.
Another point to mention is that not all of these titles have all four S.E.M.I. ingredients but they do have at least two. And I contend that the more of these “ingredients” you have, the stronger the title. How important is a strong title? In her book, “The Craft of Lyric Writing,” author/lyricist Sheila Davis quotes hit songwriter Motown’s Ron Miller (“For Once in My Life,” “Touch Me in the Morning”) as saying, “I always, absolutely, unequivocally get a title first. I may spend days finding the right title, and once I find it, I may write the lyric in twenty minutes.” She goes on to say, “Many successful writers have made (strong) ‘title first’ their main modus operandi, and it is a skill worth acquiring.”
How fast should you be able to write a song? I’ll tell you how long it took Burt Bacharach and Hal David to write “What the World Needs Now,” next time.
Samm Brown III is a film/TV composer, a former record industry executive, a RIAA 10X Platinum/Gold award winning record producer, songwriter/consultant, arranger, and orchestrator, who has had 9 number 1 records, (Michael Jackson, Maxine Nightingale, New Edition, David Naughton), artist manager and host of a weekly radio show on KPFK (90.7 fm), Sunday afternoon at 2 pm called “Samm Brown’s FOR THE RECORD”. It’s a one-hour talk show exclusively focusing on the behind-the-scenes of the entertainment industry. He can be reached at: sbrownKPFK@aol.com.